Mindful

I was flying to a mindfulness conference recently when I looked down to my tray table. My Macbook formed the base of a neat pyramid of trendy technologies, with my iPad on top of the laptop, and my iPhone resting on the iPad. It took a moment before I realized the absurdity: I’m off to talk about the importance of staying in the moment and have no less than three gleaming Apple products sitting in front of me just to get through one cross-country flight? Sure, it was funny, but my next impulse was to take a picture and share the moment online.

There’s nothing inherently bad or good about technology. Technology just is. How we relate to it and what we do with it are what matters. But our phones are not designed to be neutral, they are created to keep us hooked with texting, shopping, and sharing data with marketers, corporations, and even government agencies…oh, and our friends and family, too.

I’ve heard it said that a thinking mind can be our most powerful servant or our most terrible master. The same could well be said of our technology, which more often disconnects us from others and ourselves that connects us. And, our phones and devices are addictive, in a very literal sense. Our beeps and alerts arrive on what behaviorists call a “variable rate reinforcement schedule.” The term essentially means that our phone’s random buzzing throughout the day acts as a little reward for the brain, which is rewired to crave more. Video games, slot machines, and even our phones are often designed by psychologists to maximize their addictive qualities. This explains why we see kids (or catch ourselves) mindlessly refreshing email and social media feeds.

Our devices hold out the false promise that there is something more important, more urgent, more interesting than our present-moment experience.

Our devices hold out the false promise that there is something more important, more urgent, more interesting than our present-moment experience. Unfortunately, while that statement makes rational sense, it is not going to hold much water with a nine-year-old clutching an iPad, or a tween on snapchat.

We can tell kids that they need healthy boundaries around screen time, or we can show them with our own actions, which is far harder but far more effective. I’m as guilty as anyone else; I love my gadgets and my social media. Ask yourself, how long do you spend in the morning checking in with yourself and your loved ones in person before you tap the glowing screen of your phone? Where is your phone right now? How do you feel when you don’t know where it is? Do you usually keep it in your pocket, your bag, your desk, another room?

When we teach children to disconnect from their experience with digital distractions, by modeling that behavior ourselves, it is no wonder they never learn basic emotional fluency, attachment, and social cues. They don’t learn that emotions and urges arise and pass, and that human beings actually can tolerate discomfort.

Sherry Turkle, who writes about technology says “If we don’t teach our kids to be alone, we will teach them to be lonely.” Explicitly and implicitly, the way we live and the media we consume are teaching all of us to be lonely, to be too busy to attend to our needs, and to deal with emotions through looking outside of ourselves, rather than looking inside at the first twinge of discomfort.

With mindfulness, we look inward, get in touch with the internal experience, tolerate it, and maybe even learn from it. In this way, we become happier and healthier.

Running counter to all of the checking out, mindfulness teaches us how to be with ourselves, a capacity for being alone. Mindful curiosity reveals that the present moment is both important and interesting. Checking in with the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral aspects of our experience and the world around us is profoundly worthwhile. With mindfulness, we look inward, get in touch with the internal experience, tolerate it, and maybe even learn from it. In this way, we become happier and healthier. Mindfulness teaches us not only how to be alone, but how to be in authentic connection with others as well.

When we are intentional about taking time off from technology, we may face resistance at first. One family I work with turns off the wireless router for much of the day, and if the kids want the Internet, they plug in the old-fashioned way, with a cable. Since there is only one room where the cable can be connected, this rule at least keeps family members in the same room, and it makes connecting to the Internet an intentional act, not something done merely due to boredom.

Other families and institutions have set hours when the Internet is on or off, or they have virtual quiet rooms where the router blocks access to some sites. Others set specific days or hours to be “technology sabbaths” or “phone-free Fridays,” when we can truly be present for ourselves and those around us. Time away from technology has been shown to have significant benefits to social skills, as well as reducing stress. Kids often worry about FOMO, the fear of missing out, but increasingly talk about the relief of unplugging and JOMO—the joy of missing out.

How To Set Mindful Technology Limits

    • Establish tech-free times, such as the hour before bed or the first hour after waking up.
    • Designate tech-free places, such as the dinner table, the car, the family room, or staff meetings.
    • Try leaving your phone in the car or in your bag, rather than your pocket, while you run errands.
    • Establish wireless hours and wired hours within the home, and check with your provider about how to shut down non-emergency use of devices during certain hours.
    • Lobby for virtual quiet rooms, where chat functions or social media are blocked, within schools, libraries, and other public venues.
    • Only check messages when you can actually respond to them.
    • Deliberately interact with people: ask someone for directions, chat with the shop clerk, and say hello to someone next to you rather than immediately looking into your phone.

Two Tips for Mindful Tech:

1) When you pick up your gadgets, do it mindfully. Each time you look at your phone it’s an opportunity for a short mindfulness practice to check in first. The beeps and buzzes of our devices can also be reminders to take a breath or check in with ourselves. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and writer, even suggests sometimes not shutting off the cell phone when you meditate. Instead, just sit in meditation and notice the body’s and the mind’s reactions to each beep and buzz of the phone, the stories and urges and emotions as they arise. The objects of attention become our emotional response to the silence (anticipation, relief), our emotional response to the beeps, chirps, songs, and buzzes as they arise (irritation, curiosity, anxiety), and whatever urges arise due to the sounds.

2) Build mindful reminders into your devices. Make the background wallpaper some kind of reminder to breathe or check in. How many times a day do we type a password into our devices? This too can be a reminder if we make our password breathe or something similar. My friend Mark Bertin suggests putting calm images like beach scenes on your most annoying contacts or difficult people. There are also plenty of free websites, apps, and podcasts offer guided meditations and discussions of meditation as well. Other software and hardware teach basic mind/body principles through biofeedback and neurofeedback. Plug-ins for browsers can block certain websites and distractions for chosen lengths of time. Shut off automatic passive alerts and push notifications, and instead make the active choice to check in with messages and updates.

This article was adapted from Dr. Christopher Willard’s book Growing Up Mindful.
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Christopher Willard

Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston, specializing in mindfulness for adolescents and young adults. He has been practicing meditation for over fifteen years. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and the Mindfulness in Education Network. Dr. Willard has published five books on contemplative practice, including Growing Up Mindful. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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